“Levelling up” has always been more of an electoral ploy than either a serious long-term strategy for elevating the economies of other UK cities and regions towards the heights of London’s or a mission to lessen inequality across the nation. Both the much-publicised comments of Rishi Sunak to Conservatives in Tunbridge Wells and the responses to them further exposed both the vacuity of the so-called “levelling up agenda” and the inadequacy of the debate about it.
Footage of Sunak passed to the New Statesman showed the former Chancellor telling local Tory members he had “managed to start changing the funding formulas” when in government so that “areas like this are getting the funding they deserve” rather than “deprived urban areas” he said had been favoured under Labour.
Which “deprived urban areas” did Sunak mean? In the Tunbridge Wells footage he didn’t say, but Jake Berry, the professional northerner and Liz Truss supporter who represents a seat in Lancashire, took it as read that “deprived urban areas” meant places in the north of England. “In public Rishi Sunak claims he wants to level up the North” Berry declared, yet there he was down in Kent boasting about “trying to funnel vital investment away from deprived areas”.
Sunak later claimed that his endeavours had been motivated by a recognition that even posh places have poor people. But for Berry, who chairs the caucus representing Tory MPs in north of England seats that calls itself the Northern Research Group, it seems that only the north of England experiences deprivation. Indeed, he and his allies like to portray the north as a whole as being deprived.
How did Labour react to what Sunak said? In a letter to the new levelling up secretary Greg Clark his shadow, Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan, reminded him that his department has been found to have allocated funding for “levelling up” in questionable ways, which have resulted in the areas represented by Sunak himself and the now former communities secretary Robert Jenrick benefitting. But Nandy’s letter did not name areas she considered wronged and on Twitter specified only “affluent Tory shires” as beneficiaries.
Berry trades on “north-south divide” populism. Labour, not unreasonably, is at pains not to give the Tories opportunities to depict it as the party of the co-called “metropolitan elite”. Even so, the absence of the capital from this flurry of “levelling up” hostilities, even as it is being persistently levelled down, is a further example of it only appearing in what passes for a debate about whatever levelling up” is meant to be as a focus for grievances and an object of hostility.
Meanwhile, post-pandemic, London’s tax surpluses will again support services and investment in the rest of the country and, at the same time, the city will continue to contain very high rates of poverty. Yet in national politics, these things have become unmentionable.
Image from film footage supplied to New Statesman.
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